Students Shine a Spotlight on Geothermal Energy and Discover Career Pathways

The consensus among advocates of geothermal energy seems to be that geothermal energy is a great alternative resource, but not enough people know what it is. Student competitors in the 2014 National Geothermal Student Competition were faced with the fundamental challenge of addressing this issue.

Tyler Ricketts, Desmond Stubbs and Lee Ingram (left to right) are pictured at the student poster session of the Geothermal Resources Council Annual Meeting in September 2014. Ricketts and Ingram are members of the University of Mississippi Geothermal Student Competition team, and Desmond Stubbs is the ORAU senior program manager for the competition.  

Hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Geothermal Technologies Office, the Geothermal Student Competition was started in 2010 to advance understanding of geothermal energy. The competition engages students from colleges and universities nationwide on challenges within the field of geothermal energy such as comprehensive assessments of geothermal resource potential, research studies on geothermal power development and business plans for developing a geothermal enterprise. This year the challenge was a little different: student teams were tasked to develop a way to communicate geothermal energy to the public. 

With the theme of GeoEnergy is Beautiful 2014, the student teams were asked to create a clear and engaging infographic to simply explain an aspect of geothermal power production and then develop a communications and outreach strategy that would help to publicly disseminate the information.

Desmond Stubbs, Ph.D., senior program manager at Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU), the organization that administers the competition for the DOE, said the over-arching aspiration for the competition is to build geothermal energy awareness and education. “We want students engaged in geothermal energy on campuses and within the public domain,” he explained. “We’re also playing an integral role in DOE’s energy strategy, which attempts to leverage all energy sources, including geothermal.”

The competition, which opened in March, invited applications from teams consisting of high school students, undergraduates and/or graduate students. Each team was required to select a team lead and mentor from the industry or academia. After review of the infographic and communications strategy by the DOE, the teams that qualified for the second round received two benefits: an all-expenses paid trip to attend the 2014 Geothermal Resources Council Annual Meeting (GRC) in Portland, Ore., from Sept. 28 to Oct. 1, to present finalized infographics and outreach strategies, and $2,500 to fund planning and implementation of the outreach strategy.

At the conference, the three finalists — Truckee Meadows Community College, the University of Texas-Pan American and the University of Mississippi — were recognized by DOE Geothermal Technologies Office Director Doug Hollett with awards for first, second and third place. Judged by an interdisciplinary review panel from the public and private sector, the winners were evaluated on creativity and aesthetics of the infographic, clarity, depth and feasibility of the communications strategy, and the quality and relevance of the infographic’s message. This year a “People’s Choice Award” was also added during the poster session, at which time anyone viewing the posters could vote for their favorite.

Since 2013, first place teams have also received a one-time geothermal scholarship for their college, university or high school. Students interested in geothermal energy at the school can apply to receive the scholarship. The University of Rochester’s two past-year recipients are using their scholarships to fund geothermal doctoral field research and undergraduate laboratory research.

Student teams in the 2014 competition all had minimal exposure to geothermal energy before participating, but became much more knowledgeable and excited about the industry as a whole because of their participation. The experience also seemed to light a passion in some for raising awareness about geothermal energy’s potential or pursuing a career in geothermal energy.

For more about the student competitors, see the next page.

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Truckee Meadows Community College – First Place

Phil Ulibarri (middle) stands next to Doug Hollett, Geothermal Technologies Office Director (left), and Turguy Dogan, Pathway Specialist for Academic Affairs at Truckee Meadows Community College (right), after receiving first place in the DOE Geothermal Student Competition at the Geothermal Resources Council Meeting in September 2014. (Photo courtesy of GRC) 

Phil Ulibarri, a student at Truckee Meadows Community College, was the first place winner of the National Geothermal Student Competition, as well as the sole team member. His former teammate dropped out of the competition early after accepting a job offer, forcing Ulibarri to work on his own, which did not seem to harm his odds of winning.

A graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno in 1990, Ulibarri has worked as the communications program manager at the Washoe County Health District for 25 years. Now he is a returning part-time student at Truckee Meadows Community College on his way to obtaining a geothermal plant operator certificate.

“Geothermal is a very important industry right now, especially here in Nevada,” Ulibarri explained. “I think it’s a new area where I can make a difference, and one that I also find very interesting. That’s part of why I entered the competition, plus with my experience in communications, I thought it would be a unique challenge.”

Ulibarri’s poster included several colorful infographics pieced together to depict the benefits of geothermal energy, including minimal land use, health benefits, less pollution and carbon emissions, and lower electricity bills.

To develop all of this, Ulibarri asked legislators, educators, friends and acquaintances, “What do you think would be the best way to present geothermal energy that would make it both attractive and make people pay attention?” Using their answers, Ulibarri also created a website that links to his infographic poster and provides material for all ages.

In the website title, “youandmecleanenergy.com,” the “me” is a play on both the word “me” and the term “Mother Earth.” The website goes in-depth where the infographic cannot, including videos on geothermal energy, clear explanations of the process of geothermal energy, and links to other resources for further education. 

For Ulibarri, participating in the competition allowed him to completely dive into the project and learn more about geothermal energy than he had in any of his classes. He used part of the finalist funds he received to attend the 2014 National Geothermal Academy, which provided him with networking opportunities and valuable information on the geothermal industry. His long-term goal is to use the infographics and website to create a high-profile national campaign for the promotion of geothermal energy with a special emphasis on children.

“For me, working on this project was important, because I’ve realized that to succeed we need to start educating kids at a young age if we want geothermal energy to be an option in the future,” Ulibarri said. “Now, that’s something I hope we make a priority.”

Recently, Ulibarri was able to present his ideas about geothermal energy to Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and other energy officials in a meeting at the University of Nevada, Reno. After graduation from Truckee, he hopes to enter either geothermal consulting or energy education and outreach.

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University of Texas-Pan American – Second Place

(Left to right) Jacob Garza, Erica Balderas and Jose Cazares, members of the University of Texas-Pan American team, stand next to Doug Hollett, Geothermal Technologies Office Director, after receiving second place and the “People’s Choice Award,” in the DOE Geothermal Student Competition at the Geothermal Resources Council Meeting in September 2014. (Photo courtesy of GRC)

A team of civil engineers from the University of Texas-Pan American, Jose Cazares, Jacob Garza and Erica Balderas were overjoyed when they won both second place and the “People’s Choice Award” in the Geothermal Student Competition. 

“I was so happy that we made it into the semi-finals and were able to travel to the Geothermal Resources Conference, that it was also a dream come true to place in the competition,” Balderas, a senior, said.

The UTPA infographic had dual sides in English and Spanish and colorfully displayed the consequences of living in an environment where only fossil fuels were used for energy.

“We wanted to inform viewers of the hazards of continuing with current energy policies and the relief that would be provided by investing in geothermal energy,” Cazares said. “We also wanted to show that geo-energy would truly make a more beautiful world, while also making geothermal concepts accessible to Spanish-speakers.”

The three were the only students to travel early to the conference to attend the Altarock Energy’s Newberry Volcano EGS demonstration. The expedition to the Newberry Volcano geothermal wells gave the Texas natives a first-hand look at geothermal energy in action, which they hope to use for future geothermal presentations and research.

Though Garza, Balderas and Cazares were all concerned about missing several days of classes for both the field trip and the conference, they ultimately found the experience to be valuable because of the opportunity to interact with geothermal professionals and gain exposure to the geothermal industry.

“I found that the professionals were just as human as I am,” Garza, a senior, said. “Before this experience, it always seemed like it was a gap impossible to get past, but now I realize that everyone is not so different. I think it solidified my goal to obtain a doctoral degree because I realize that someone like me is also capable of achieving it.”

Balderas echoed a similar interest in pursuing an advanced degree in geothermal energy after attending the conference, though she is also considering alternative energy policy.

Cazares, a senior, believes he’s probably going to stick to transportation engineering after graduation but still called the competition and conference, “one of the greatest and eye-opening experiences of my life.”

Future plans for their infographic include presentations in high school classrooms and mailing out mini copies to U.S. congressmen, in the hopes of promoting geothermal energy. They also plan to use part of their finalist funds to jump-start a new club on campus, the “Geothermal Resources Council,” aptly named after the conference which helped inspire them. The purpose of the newly-formed organization is to bring students interested in geothermal resources together to further geothermal initiatives through research and exploration. Currently the club has 15 members, though they hope to expand their numbers in the future.  

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University of Mississippi – Third Place

(Left to right) Tyler Ricketts, Michael Jones and  Lee Ingram, members of the University of Mississippi team, stand next to Doug Hollett, Geothermal Technologies Office Director, after receiving third place in the Geothermal Student Competition at the Geothermal Resources Council Meeting in September 2014. (Photo courtesy of GRC) 

The University of Mississippi team members who won third place in the Geothermal Student Competition all had something unique in common — they went to the same high school together. Lee Ingram and Tyler Rickets are even roommates, while Michael Jones, who is two years older and graduated in May, has recently moved to the University of Texas at Austin for graduate school.

Jones found himself originally drawn to the competition because of his discovery of how underplayed geothermal energy is after participating in the 2013 National Geothermal Academy. “I got really excited about the idea of the competition and spreading the word about geothermal energy,” he said. “All I had left to do was pull along my two high school classmates to form a team, and I was ready to go.”  

The Ole Miss team’s infographic portrayed direct-use geothermal energy, which uses the heated fluid from the ground directly for purposes such as heating homes, fish farms, greenhouses, businesses or entire communities. The visuals also emphasized how geothermal energy can be used in our daily lives, especially as a viable resource in the South.

“Though most people think of geothermal energy only being an option in the western U.S., we wanted to show that it could just as easily be utilized in the southern U.S.,” Ricketts said. “People don’t realize that geothermal energy can be for personal use, and not just power plants. And for that reason alone the South shouldn’t be left out.”

Now the future plans for the infographic rest in the hands of Ingram and Ricketts, while Jones focuses on his master’s degree. They plan to use their finalist funds to place geothermal energy information directly into middle school classrooms.

“We hope to push the infographic out to educators very soon, along with a ready-made lesson plan on geothermal energy and geothermal resources,” Ingram said. “I’ve already connected with several local educators in Mississippi, and at the conference we also talked to South American contacts who were possibly interested. We’re excited to see how far this could go both in the U.S. and beyond.”

Ingram, an accounting major, and Ricketts, a geology major, are both juniors overwhelmed with schoolwork and little time to think about what they might do after graduation. But now after the competition, both are considering the possibilities of a career in the geothermal industry, and how that could intertwine with the interests they already have.

For Jones, who still expresses his disappointment in the general public’s lack of knowledge about geothermal energy (even in the students in his geology graduate program), he sees a variety of employment opportunities. Most recently, because of his newfound proficiency in Adobe Illustrator, he is applying for a summer fellowship that involves geological outreach and graphics development. “If I hadn’t participated in the competition, I wouldn’t be qualified or even interested in this fellowship,” Jones said. “And for that opportunity alone, I’m grateful.” 

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